Comfort Crash Course

(Finally!) The Comfort Crash Course Bibliography

Since arriving back on shore following the Comfort Crash Course, I’ve received several requests from readers for a bibliography of all the texts I read while at sea, and I have promised continually that I would follow through. I’m in the throes of trying to learn as much as I can about one of the biggest issues here in Berlin, which has a lot to do with confronting comfort—affordability—but since there’s always something new coming down the pipes, if I don’t do this bibliography now I’m sure I won’t ever be able to get to it. So here goes!

I started off the Comfort Crash Course with a really fascinating book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012), which taught me about the neurological function that fuels both our cravings and our habits in a feedback loop. If you’re not willing to commit to the whole book, David Brooks wrote an interesting review and analysis in his New York Times column, titled “The Machiavellian Temptation”—though I highly recommend making the effort for the full read. Other good reading on this that I used as background includes Jonah Lehrer’s “The Willpower Trick” in Wired, as well as his great article “Blame It on the Brain” in the Wall Street Journal. 

I then moved on to looking at the historical shift in the definition of the word comfort, and how it ultimately legitimized the phenomenon of popular consumption patterns. The main texts I cited here were John E. Crowley’s fascinating 1999 essay “The Sensibility of Comfort” (The American Historical Review 104, no. 3 [June 1999], pp. 749–82) and Marc Levinson’s book on the—surprisingly fascinating—history of the shipping container, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). The latter is not for the faint of heart, but a serious indulgence for the geeks among us who are into learning about the massive effects that simple or singular inventions can have on society as we know it.

More interesting background reading I did on this was Peter J. Taylor’s essay “What’s Modern about the Modern World-System? Introducing Ordinary Modernity through World Hegemony,” which looks at the link between “modernity” and consumption, and at both as means for world homogeny and hegemony (Review of International Polical Economy 3, no. 2 [Summer 1996], pp. 260–86).

Both Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life (New York: Doubleday, 2010) and Tomas Maldonado and John Cullars’s highly, highly recommended essay “The Idea of Comfort” (Design Issues 8, no. 1 [Autumn 1991], pp.  35–43) gave a great overview of the link between the evolving idea of comfort and the increasing privatization of our lives, sometimes at the expense of comfort in the public realm.

Next up, in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007) and Stephen Greenblatt’s recent The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011) I learned about how the arts teach us things that science cannot, and about the historical roots of mankind’s consideration of beauty and pleasure as legitimate and worthy human pursuits. I then went on to read about the many ways we have tried throughout history to clear time for such things by means of the mechanization of day-to-day activities. My favorite reading on this topic was Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History by Sigfried Giedion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948)—a book in which the pictures, mostly of original patents and advertisements for things like washing machines, lawn mowers, and vacuum cleaners, are almost as captivating as the words explaining the history behind them.

Robert Penn’s It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels (London: Penguin, 2010) and the somewhat disturbing article “Diseases of Comfort: Primary Cause of Death in the 22nd Century” by Bernard Choi, David Hunter, Walter Tsou, and Peter Sainsbury (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 59, no. 12 [December 2005], pp. 1030–34) were good for a look at how comfort ultimately acts as trump card in our decision-making processes, and why that matters if we’re looking at how to design solutions that tempt us into more responsible behavior.

And if you want to read more on the psychology of environmental mastery, and why it drives us so bonkers when the bus is late or we’re stuck in traffic, check out “Happiness Is Everything, or Is It? Explorations on the Meaning of Psychological Well-Being” by one of my favorite psychologists, Carole D. Ryff  (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57, no. 6 [December 1989], pp. 1069–81).

There were dozens more readings in my book bag, but I’m saving them for the next round. Anyway, I think this is probably enough reading to keep you occupied until then—unless you happen to be on a freighter ship, that is, in which case it will last you about two weeks.

In the meantime, there’s an important discussion at hand in Berlin that needs and deserves attention, so I’m heading back to that. I’d be thrilled if all of you who followed the Comfort Crash Course so diligently and thoughtfully would also join in that discussion as we continue along on Lab | Log. The more eyes, ears, and brains, the better!

Photo:  Christine McLaren.